Energy & Environment

Grid Managers Say Texans May Get ‘Rotating’ Blackouts Once Their Power Returns

Some power plants and infrastructure that were knocked offline due to the freezing weather are up and running again, but the grid’s condition remains critical.

Half a million Texans were still out of power Thursday after winter weather this week.

Warning that the state is "not out of the woods yet," grid managers at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said Thursday they are making progress restoring power to millions of Texans. The reason? Some power plants and infrastructure that were knocked offline due to the freezing weather are up and running again.

But the grid’s condition remains critical. Half a million people are still without power, and snow is once again falling in parts of Texas, which could slow efforts to restore electricity.

Why Is My Power Still Out?

The news that power has been restored to some will be cold comfort to those still stuck in freezing temperatures and darkness.

And ERCOT says if your power does return, you might expect it to go off again periodically as grid managers "rotate" the power cuts to try to provide electricity to more people for brief periods of time.

Officials also cautioned that some homes may remain without power even after their neighbors get power back. They said ice-covered trees may have broken local power lines, cutting off some homes, especially in Central Texas.

"You can just imagine live oak trees, which still have leaves on it, and you’ve got a bunch of ice on it," said Dan Woodfin, ERCOT's director of systems operations. "If those fall on lines then crews have to go out and fix those lines."

As they have in other media calls, grid operators said they have no control over who gets power back and when. ERCOT only mandates power cuts to local utilities, which then chose where to cut power.

In Austin, for example, there were still 81,000 customers without power Thursday morning, down from 220,000 earlier this week. In the past, city officials have said they chose where to keep the lights on based on where "critical infrastructure" is located.

Gas Froze Up, Wind Overperformed

Officials provided more details Thursday on what types of power-generator failures lead to the blackouts.

Texas Republican leaders, like Gov. Greg Abbott, have been quick to take the blackouts as an opportunity to attack renewable energy. That criticism is not based in fact.

Thermal power, generated by natural gas and coal, made up the vast majority of power lost in the storm.

“We started having problems getting enough gas to generators," Woodfin said. "The problem goes back to the wellhead. We had a lot of wellheads freezing up, so the gas wasn’t able to get into pipes.”

"One potential path of regulation that would help with this situation, from my perspective, is make sure those wellheads don’t freeze up so that we have enough gas in these kind of cold weather events," he said.

While a lot of attention has been paid to wind turbines shutting down in icy conditions, wind power actually overperformed expectations during much of the initial storm.

Woddfin said about half of wind generators in Texas were out of service during the worst of the storm, but the half that were in service "were actually producing more output than what we counted upon in our seasonal assessment from the whole fleet during winter peak time conditions."

MORE | ‘Unfair and Untrue' — False Claims Spread About Wind Energy's Role In The Texas Grid Failure

Who Is to Blame? What's To Be Done?

ERCOT has become the primary object of blame for the statewide blackout. Public anger has been so great that the group removed the names of its board of directors from its website Wednesday because they were receiving threats. ERCOT says the information will be reposted within a week.

Texas grid operators normally try to keep a public distance from politics and policy decisions, presenting themselves as impartial technocrats overseeing the state’s deregulated energy market. But in media calls, they have come close to wading into the debate over where the responsibility lies for the blackouts.

CEO Bill Magness insisted again that ERCOT did its job by instituting the blackout, something that had to be done to avoid a catastrophic grid failure.

If ERCOT had not ordered power cuts "we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about restoration today, tomorrow. he said. "We would be telling you that we’re not sure when restoration would be done."

A federal report after blackouts in 2011 faulted Texas grid managers with not mandating strong winter weatherization protocols.

Magness again insisted Thursday that his organization has "no authority" to mandate the way power generators weatherize their infrastructure to guard against blackouts.

He argued that ERCOT has simply been following state law during times of electricity scarcity.

"The state asks us to implement state law and to implement measures to make sure that the grid is reliable and doesn’t have a blackout. And if there are changes in what the Legislature wants ERCOT to do as part of that we need to follow the state statute,” he said.

Meanwhile, regulators at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have also announced an inquiry into the blackouts.

"I want to indicate that I believe that we’re ready to act, assuming the inquiry suggests that there are actions that need to be taken," FERC Chairman Richard Glick told reporters Thursday.

Got a tip? Email Mose Buchele at mbuchele@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.

Subscribe to Today in Houston

Fill out the form below to subscribe our new daily editorial newsletter from the HPM Newsroom.

* required

Share